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New ILO guidance urges governments to respect seafarers' rights under MLC

15 March 2021

Governments have been warned again by the International Labour Organisations (ILO) that a health pandemic is no excuse for abandoning their obligations to uphold seafarers' rights in relation to crew changes and health and safety rights.

The warning is outlined in new ILO guidance, following its previous ruling in December 2020 that found governments had breached seafarers' rights and failed to comply with several provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC).

The revised information note was published on 3 February and issues a stark warning: 'Failure to apply any of the core principles and requirements of the MLC, 2006 under the pretext of a protracted health crisis may render the Convention meaningless'. This could have a 'negative impact on navigational safety' – with an increased risk of maritime accidents due to fatigue – and on the environment, and 'immeasurable disturbances on the international supply and distribution of necessity goods'.

The ILO said it was issuing the revised information note in response to numerous requests from governments and seafarers' and shipowners' organisations.

The ILO note reminds flags states of their social protection obligations on seafarers' entitlement to paid sick leave. 'In its General Observation, the Committee of Experts requested flag states to ensure that no fees or other charges for seafarer recruitment or placement, including the cost of any quarantine obligations before joining the ship, are borne directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, by the seafarer.'

Flag states and port states are urged to comply with the provisions of the MLC, particularly those covering forced labour issues relating to the Covid-19 crew change crisis, which has kept hundreds of thousands of seafarers trapped at sea.

The guidance notes that MLC is a 'comprehensive labour instrument for the maritime industry applicable to all ratifying countries, and not a compilation of labour regulations to be applied selectively, if and to the extent that circumstances so permit'.

While ports around the world have continued to operate uninterruptedly during the pandemic, seafarers – who provide a key frontline service to society, with more than 90 per cent of world trade moved by sea, including food and vital medical supplies – continue to face extreme difficulties to disembark and transit through countries for the purpose of repatriation.

There is a pressing need for restoring full respect of basic seafarers' rights, and drawing the right lessons for the future. 'The possibility to attract young talent into the seafarer profession might also be further compromised if the international community fails to deliver on this,' ILO concluded.


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